President Biden says the U.S. is ramping up vaccine deliveries to hard-pressed states over the next three weeks and expects to provide enough doses to vaccinate 300 million Americans by the end of the summer or early fall. Biden is calling the push a “wartime effort." Biden says the administration is working to buy an additional 100 million doses of each of the two approved coronavirus vaccines. In Woodstock, N.Y., pharmacist Neal Smoller of Village Apothecary has been vaccinating hundreds of eager customers a week. But he says the process has its challenges.
So right now we're running COVID vaccine clinics, two to three days a week. Right now we have six volunteers screening people. And we have two immunizers injecting people. We're ringing bells and clapping and celebrating every time somebody gets a shot, because I believe that this is a celebration, and we need to be partying, you know?
How come? Has it been a hard few months?
Oh, my goodness, it's been a very difficult month for people. The whole year, actually, you know, and like, hearing the stories, 'I can see my grandkids again, I can visit my family I haven't seen in a year,' you know, all of these life changing opportunities that we'll be able to give people today. It's pretty amazing.
Leaders like Governor Cuomo have been making the point that there's just not enough vaccine for everybody who wants it. How is that playing out in your shop?
So I think when it comes to the idea of vaccine supply, I think our perspectives are off a little bit. I mean, I'm actually flattered and honored to be able to get doses now. I thought I wasn't gonna have my hands on doses until March. And I think the people that have been watching this unfold have known that we were going to have vaccine supply issues at the beginning. And we knew that it was going to be a ramp up period. I think that there was a lot of things that happened, of course that made us all think that we were about to all be vaccinated, and those things didn't come true. So our expectations are a little bit upside down. But I've been telling people like this is a miracle that we're getting the doses now. And we should be happy about it. And yeah, Governor Cuomo got some stress trying to get vaccines to us. But we're getting something and we're making a dent in the communities where we can,
How does it work for somebody who wants to come to you to get a vaccine? How does that connection get made?
So basically, what we've been doing is I stood up a website in 12 hours after Governor Cuomo announced that pharmacies were going to help. So my website is drneal.co/vax. And right now what we have is a waiting list. People sign up for the waiting list and then we announce, hey, we've got doses. Sign up. And it's kind of like a feeding frenzy. And you reserve a spot and then you come on site. And we ring the bell for you.
Are they screened in some way to make sure that they fit into the right phase under New York's vaccine rollout plan? You know, they're supposed to be getting it at this time?
Yes. So basically, the way that it works is pharmacies have been charged with only immunizing 65 year olds and older. So our questionnaire actually has a date of birth checker. And then we also have some of the basic screening questions. Have you been treated with COVID antibodies? Do you use an epi pen? Have you had a vaccine in the last couple weeks? And so those are ways for us to kind of get a sense of who's coming to us. But for us, it's easy. We have the date of birth, and that's really the only check.
So could you generally characterize the kind of people who have been coming in? I mean, are they typically 65 and over? Are they frontline workers who are younger than that? What have you been seeing?
So the only people that I can immunize are the 65-plus, so I've actually been immunizing the aging hippies of Woodstock and the surrounding communities. So basically, just as you would imagine, seniors that are coming in to get vaccines, no real frontline workers, some folks are still employed, but it's been mostly just senior citizens.
So have you been able to get it yet?
I actually was vaccinated on January 5, which again, I thought was an absolute miracle. I wasn't expecting my dose till about June. So I've been vaccinated. And so has my staff.
You referred to maybe unreal expectations about how soon the vaccine can be distributed, that kind of thing. Are you sensing a lot of frustration among your customers in terms of how this rollout is happening? And what's your message to people who haven't been able to get it as fast as they would like to?
Yeah, so I think that, you know, our energy throughout this whole crisis has been pretty dynamic. At the beginning, we were very confused and unclear and worried. And now that's turned into frustration and anxiety over getting this dose to end this stinking thing. So people's energies have changed. And now with the tease of these doses, that energy is turned to anger. And that's not good, because a lot of us are out here and we're helping and we're trying to get doses in people's arms. So what we've just been saying is, you know, turn that frown upside down. That's the advice we've been giving. In this, we should be celebrating as our neighbors get these doses, because as more members of the community to get the doses, the safer will all be, and just a little bit more patience. The other big piece here is that you're not going to have a big change of life once you get this vaccine. I mean, Dr. Fauci, just told us to double mask because of the variant, and we're still gonna have to do that despite getting vaccinated. So we have to remember that even if you get that dose in the arm, it does give you that peace of mind. But we have a long way to go before life really changes.
I don't know if you're tracking this at all, but when you're opening for appointments on your website, when you have new dose to distribute, are you getting a lot more hits than vaccine is available?
So yes, our waiting list was around 1,200 people, and we had about 3,000 people hit the site within 15 minutes, and lots of frustration around not getting the dose. And I mean, the technology isn't made for that kind of volume, these appointment schedulers that are available. And people are getting frustrated because of that. So the demand is excessive compared to the supply. And so that is a major issue. And especially now that I'm on WAMC, I'm sure that demand is going to go up.
Are you getting the Pfizer or the Moderna or both?
I've been loving the Moderna, the Moderna, I don't have to reconstitute. So it makes it much quicker. And I'm sure you've heard that the pharmacy nerds figured out that you can draw extra doses out of the Moderna vial, if you use a syringe that has less dead space. So almost every single vial, I've been able to draw out two extra doses. That means I've been able to immunize 20% more folks than doses that have been allocated to me.
Can you just explain how that works?
So each vial is filled to guarantee 10 doses, which is five milliliters, but what I found is they have to overfill it to ensure that those 10 doses are in there. And they actually are putting about six and a quarter milliliters to make sure that those five milliliters are delivered. So every vial is overfilled, a little bit to make sure that there's at least those 10 doses. And there's no sense throwing it away. We're in a crisis, we're in a shortage, we need to use every single dose. So we use two extra full doses almost out of every vial.
That's kosher to do?
Yes, actually, the the guidance has said, do not mix vials, but use as many doses as you can from each vial. And in fact, it should be done. In fact, we should be promoting that, you know.
So how long do you think you'll be in this mode of you know, having hundreds of people come in a couple times a week and taking the jab?
I think that within a few weeks, I'll probably be running three to four days a week, if not five, with 500-dose clinics. I think as the supply goes up, this is a marathon where we're going to be sprinting every other mile. I believe that this will happen for us for probably 12 weeks to six months. Easy.
Wow. That's a significant commitment. Do you have a lot of people working for you to get this done?
So I have lots of volunteers from the community, we've been staffing these with family and friends, I need people that I can trust that I can rely on that can be here to help me. And they've been able to help us provide hundreds and thousands of doses now. So I have those folks. And we have lots of pharmacists that are interested in coming and volunteering. The number of folks volunteering has been overwhelming. And there's been a lot of outpouring of support to help us get this job done.
You've been a pharmacist for you know, quite a while 15 years, I think, or more.
Have you ever seen anything like this before?
This is unprecedented. I've said that the first week of this was simultaneously the best week of my professional career hands down, and the worst, because of the amount of work that we had to do. And again, those frustrations and the anger. There were people that were yelling at us, I'm getting hate mail all the time because people couldn't get doses. So it's like we're feeling that part of it with the general public. And then we're saving people's lives. We've been called heroes and like nonstop. And you know, all the great stories and just like people crying and tearing up. So this has been unprecedented, is the worst word. I wish there was a better word. But I'm a science nerd.
Is there anything I didn't ask you that you'd like to add?
You know, that's a great question. I think that one of the things that I've recognized here is that there are three barriers to folks getting these doses. There's first the transportation issue. There’s second, the technology issue, almost all of this is online, right? Even the state requires everybody to fill out a form digitally, right. And then the third thing, of course, is race. And across the country there's stories of people that have people of color that are not getting the same access to as white people are to the vaccine. So here in our community we are we have a special initiative to ensure that our neighbors aren't forgotten and we are not one of those communities. So yesterday I spent the day driving around to seven different locations, mostly Baptist churches. We're using the churches as the center of the community and we're having people come in. So I hope to continue that work as well. Besides these mass clinics, we're gonna hopefully be working with the local governments to address the disparities that I identified there.